What Happened to America’s Dog?

What Happened to America’s Dog?

Based on the title, you probably thought this article would be about a Labrador or Golden Retriever, but it’s about a group of dogs commonly referred to as “Pit Bulls,” and their fall from grace in our society. In honor of Pit Bull Awareness month, I want to share some information about these misunderstood dogs and their history. I published this article a few years ago, but it still serves the same purpose today. If you have hesitation around pit bulls and dogs that look like them, please read on to learn a little more about their history.

During the first half of the 20th century, Pit Bulls were the closest thing the United States had to a national dog. They were featured prominently by the US in World War I and II recruiting posters, used as corporate mascots, and cast as the ideal family dog in television and movies. Now the breed is demonized, and battles everything from a media-driven reputation as being predators to abuse from their owners, to legislation that seeks to outlaw their very existence. How did this happen to a dog that was once America’s sweetheart?

WHAT IS A PIT BULL?

The term “Pit Bull” doesn’t describe a single breed of dog; it’s a generic term used to define multiple breeds of working dogs that were initially bred by crossing Bulldogs with Terriers. The core breeds include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, but the term is now used to encompass a wide array of muscular dogs with blocky heads and short hair, many of which are mixed breeds with a similar look but a different lineage. Dogs commonly mislabeled as Pit Bulls include Mastiffs, American Bulldogs, Boxers, and Plott Hounds, among others.

For the purposes of this article, “Pit Bull” will be used to describe any mixes, mutts, or purebreds that share either the breed or visual traits that are common to these dogs and face the stigma. While the term is technically incorrect, this is how it’s used in our vocabulary today.

Click here to take a quick test to see if you can correctly pick the American Pit Bull Terrier from this group of dog photos.

HISTORY OF PIT BULLS IN AMERICA

It’s believed that the first Pit Bulls were brought to America by English and Irish immigrants before the Civil War. In Europe, these dogs had a mixed history of being used as working dogs to protect the family and field, and misused for savage sports like bull baiting, which was outlawed by the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835. When Pit Bulls came to the US, they were brought over as prized possessions and family members, because the costs of transporting them over the Atlantic were significant. They were used here as working dogs, earning their keep as hunters, herders, guardians, and loved household pets.

By the early 1900’s, the Pit Bull was one of the most popular breeds in the US, and had become a symbol of American pride. They were used in posters to recruit soldiers and sell war bonds, and a Pit Bull mix named Sgt. Stubby was the first dog to be awarded an Army medal. He not only survived being wounded twice in combat, but saved his entire platoon by warning them of a poison gas attack. Stubby went on to become an American celebrity, meeting three different presidents and becoming the mascot for the Georgetown Hoyas football team.

Pit Bulls were also embraced in popular culture, with respected companies like RCA and the Buster Brown Shoe Company using the Pit Bull as their mascot and in advertising. “Petey,” the beloved dog from The Little Rascals was a Pit Bull, and popular figures from this era like Theodore Roosevelt, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Helen Keller were all proud Pit Bull owners. Because of their loyalty and temperament, they even earned the nickname “nanny dogs,” entrusted to watch over and protect young children in the house while parents worked on the farm. Pit Bulls were America’s dog: admired, trusted, and loved.

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

After WWII, the Pit Bull’s popularity began to decline as other breeds came into favor, but they were not feared or maligned until the 1980’s, when the myth of the dangerous fighting dog started to take hold in the media. The negative publicity surrounding Pit Bulls actually served to encourage bad people with bad intentions to buy and breed these dogs, and they used brutality and torture to teach them to fight and be aggressive. Gangs began assimilating Pit Bulls into their operations, and they became guilty by association with this violent, criminal culture.

Dogs that are born into and raised in this culture of violence are victims; they are beaten, electrocuted, chained, starved, and even fed gunpowder to make them tough and mean. Those that don’t fight back enough are killed or used as bait. They are seen as a form of protection and symbol of strength in many impoverished communities, and they continue to be exploited for profit in dog fighting rings, a cruel and sadistic sport that is now illegal in all 50 states.

Through no fault of their own, these poor dogs are thrown into a dark world of violence, and face a very difficult road out of it. While these extreme cases represent the minority of the Pit Bulls in the country, they represent the vast majority of dog bites and news stories that contribute to the cycle of sensationalized media coverage, vilifying these dogs as inherently aggressive and dangerous.

The media has been a driving factor in shaping America’s perception of Pit Bulls, and their coverage has been widespread and overwhelmingly negative for the last 30 years. The sad truth is that a dog biting a person only becomes a story if there is reason to believe the dog is a Pit Bull. Dog attacks involving a Pit Bull-type dog have the power to make national news, while attacks by other breeds go largely unnoticed.

Inaccurate reporting is also a problem, and the assumption is often made that any muscular, short-haired dog is a Pit Bull, while those dogs who look different are simply referred to as “dogs.” To compound matters, most organizations that assess dog bite statistics do so based on media accounts, which is already distorted data.

If you’re not sure this is true, and believe Pit Bulls are inherently dangerous, ask yourself how you’ve arrived at that decision. If you’ve never seen a Pit Bull be dangerous or aggressive, it’s very likely that the media has defined this perception for you. It is a fact that dogs of all breeds bite people, but try to remember the last time you saw anything in the news about a Labrador Retriever – the most popular dog in America – biting someone.

IMPACT

The portrayal of Pit Bulls as predators by a sensational media, inaccurate reporting, and the abuse and mistreatment of these dogs are all man-made problems that are having a grave impact on hundreds of thousands of these innocent dogs every year. As part of this cycle of misinformation and the stigma placed on them, Pit Bulls are overlooked by most adopters, they are targeted by local governments with ineffective and misguided breed-specific legislation that limits where they can live in our society, and they are by far the most euthanized breed in our shelters.

A study by the organization Animal People reports a staggering 93% euthanasia rate for Pit Bulls, and finds only a 1 in 600 chance that a Pit Bull who even manages to find its way to a shelter will find a forever home. Those are the kind of numbers that would indicate that we as a society are working to exterminate a group of animals based solely on their breed.

HOW YOU CAN HELP!

FOSTER – Open your home to foster a Pit Bull in need, and directly save a dog’s life. It’s challenging to find foster homes for larger dogs, but it’s even harder to find a foster home for a Pit Bull. Out of all the active foster homes we work with at Dogs Deserve Better, there are only 2 or 3 homes who will reliably foster a Pit Bull. This means we are limited in how many Pit Bulls we can save and they need the most help. The time commitment for fostering a Pit Bull may be a little longer, but you are saving the life of a dog who has very few choices and really needs someone to step up.
Learn more about fostering a Pit Bull or large breed dog by filling out a foster application here!

EDUCATE – Become an advocate for Pit Bulls, and help educate your family, friends, and community. SHARE articles like this one and positive stories about the breed to help counter all the negative press.
Learn more about the myths and stereotypes around Pit Bulls

ADOPT – Consider a Pit Bull as your next pet. Pit Bulls are not for every adopter, which is true for ALL powerful breed dogs. They are intelligent, energetic, and strong-willed dogs who need consistent leadership, and a commitment to their training, daily exercise, and socialization. Owning ANY powerful breed dog comes with this additional responsibility, but when you own a Pit Bull, you also need to be prepared for negative comments and bias towards your dog, and ready to educate and address them in a positive way. It’s important to lead by example and make sure your dog is an ambassador for the breed. With responsible ownership, a Pit Pup will make an excellent family dog and loving companion.

This was a challenging article to write because it’s personal to me, and there are so many points I want to include. I’m the proud owner of the two Pit Bull pups, Cleo and Zoe, that you see featured in the main photo. Both were rescued from abusive situations, and both are the sweetest dogs you will ever meet. Even though they had tough starts in life, they are good canine citizens, and a joy to have as part of our family. Pit Bulls are the least likely breed to be adopted, but some of the most loyal and loving dogs you will ever find. Cleo and Zoe are great real-life examples of the many wonderful Pit Bull rescue dogs that need and deserve good homes.

If you are interested in fostering or adopting a Pit Bull, or want to learn more and get involved in rescuing these sweet pups, please contact Suzanne @ suzanne@ddbnova.org

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